I hope and pray that none of us will ever have to use our weapons to respond to invasion of our homes, our city or our country, but if we ever do – chances are that the attack will come during the night. Therefore we have reason that we should all practice our night-time shooting skills for defense. In 2004, I was able to participate in an annual “Practical Rifle Night Match” at my local gun range. The weather was cold, dark, and at times raining lightly. This match was a two gun match (pistols also) and consisted of 4 stages with both close range and “medium” range night targets (less than 100 yards). All of the shooters I observed were using one or more of the following: iron sights with a gun mounted white flashlight, an illuminated scope, tritium night sights, or a laser & white light combination. I did not see or hear of anyone using night vision devices in this competition.
My equipment: In this match I shot a DSA built FAL carbine with a 4×12 scope (which I set on 4 power). I generally prefer a scope over other optics because I like to be able to see my target well and I often shoot at 300yds or further. I am a hunter and at times I actually hunt deer with my semi-auto .308. That scope really helps identifying my target (in that case – a deer with antlers). Since I had not previously mounted a flashlight to this gun, I manufactured a homemade mount for a two C-cell MagLite which I mounted into and below the front grips. I adjusted the mount so that the focused beam is more or less on target (aligned with my sights). This flashlight with brand new Ultra-cells worked reasonably well to light up the cardboard silhouettes out to about 75 yards. For the pistol targets I shot a ParaOrdnance .45 auto with Trijicon night sights.
Night Shooting Requirements: To shoot effectively at nighttime you must be able to do two main things, (1) see your target, and (2) obtain target acquisition with your sighting system. You also must know your weapon system well. Know how to operate it by feel – in the dark, being able to change magazines and clear jambs in the dark. In regards to seeing your target – you can shoot something you can see, but without knowing exactly what it is. CAUTION! You MUST KNOW what you are shooting at! There should be a great emphasis on identifying targets/dangers at night with your equipment. Just for examples sake, let’s suppose there is a known invasion of your part of the country by a foreign power. You see a man carrying a rifle and he is headed towards your retreat. Is it a foreign soldier bent on shooting anyone he sees armed or is it a friend who has finally hiked to your bug-out location after two months of being on foot after his G.O.O.D. vehicle was wrecked exiting the city? You must have ways of identifying friends or foes and having a bright gun mounted light is one of those. Don’t make a tragic mistake of shooting a friendly! (Note: whistle codes, code words, special routes, and flashing light/color codes are some ways to identify a friendly family or group member or a neighbor). Lastly for requirements, apply all the normal “daytime” shooting safety rules and know your backstop!
My Experience Shooting a Rifle and Pistol in the Night: I learned many things during this match which I share in the following paragraphs. One interesting stage began with close targets (about five yards) that had to be shot with your handgun before moving to the location of your rifle and taking on the longer distance rifle targets. Tritium night sites on my .45 auto worked very well for shooting at cardboard silhouettes in very low light. The drawback to tritium only is that there is no method of identifying whether the object of concern is friend or foe when in very low light. For this determination to be made a light will be required. Some of the contenders used a hand held flashlight while firing their handgun at these targets. I tried it and since I had not practiced it much I found that it was very awkward so I resorted to plan B – using my night sites only. In this case I had identified my target with the flashlight and with my eyes adjusted to the low light I was able to see the cardboard silhouettes targets with ease even past the flash of the .45 auto. Having a pistol mounted light can be very advantageous in a tactical sense although it makes the package a little bulkier.
In other stages, the targets were to be taken out by rifle and they were from 25 to 75+ yards away. Rifle scopes are great for long distance shooting and target identification but they can fog in cold damp wet weather. They have somewhat limited use by themselves in low light/night shooting. Also, the flash of the rifle can cause you to temporarily lose track of your target (although this did not seem to be as much of a problem as I thought it might be). And with a limited field of view it is easy to loose track of what’s where downrange after the medium recoil of a .308 Winchester when trying to take quick but accurate shots on multiple spaced targets. I was able to hit my targets fine but the process was much slower than in daylight.
The most advantageous method of night shooting I observed was the ability to make quick accurate shots from the hip by just pointing a flashlight /laser aiming device on the illuminated target and pulling the trigger. This was by far the fastest method to accurately shoot multiple targets in a field of fire. Of course this would take some practice to do well and an effort must be made to conserve battery life – which is short for dual mode (about 1-2 hours or so, but up to about 45 hours for laser only). This seemed to work very well with the .223 guns, and I think it may be possible to do it with a .308 caliber rifle.
In another stage, the shooter had to move towards a target that was moving at you and shoot while on the move. This is very difficult if you have not practiced it – especially through a scope. I advise any serious defender of their community to practice this skill!
In my final stage, the targets were very close and the shooter had to kneel and shoot from strange angles, around a barricade from both the right and left sides. With the targets being very close I was able to use the beam of my gun mounted light as a quick sight and was able to score decent hits very quickly even making a mag change during the process.
Match Scoring: The scores were a combination of accuracy in the shortest time. Since the regular daytime monthly matches are held on Saturdays which are a work day for me, I only get to shoot in them about 2-to-3 times per year when I take a vacation day. Many of the shooters shoot in almost every match that is scheduled. I consider myself a fairly good shooter and I usually place in the middle to slightly upper middle out of a group of about 50-60 shooters, however, in this match I placed much lower. This was because of several reasons (1) Experience – it was my first night match, (2) My lack of practice shooting through a scope at night time (slower target acquisition), (3) My gun mounted light and sight setup was far from optimal for me under these conditions. At my next opportunity, I will have a much better light and sighting system and I will have practiced my shooting skills much more in the dark of the night.
Night Shooting Equipment Options: There are a few budget minded options that can help the “poor man” to be able to shoot fairly effectively under certain darkened conditions. Glow-in-the-dark paint on iron sights is one option (this paint is commonly available at Michael’s and other craft stores, sometimes in the children’s toy/craft sections). It is very inexpensive, and can be used to mark other items that you may need to find in the dark. If you are on a very limited budget – the MagLites will be much better than no light on your weapon. Be informed that bulbs will eventually break on these lights under the shock of weapon firing, so keep numerous spare bulbs near (with) the gun. The mini-mag will probably work okay indoors with new batteries – to protect our home etc., but outdoors to be able to see and identify your target you will be much better off with something like I used for this match – the two C-cell MagLites. For the match I just used the existing on/off button switch on the C cell light and just turned it on when I was ready to check my field of fire. A pressure switch kit could be adapted to this light through the rear section, just make sure to seal it with silicone if you drill and run the switch wires through the end cap. There are commercial mini-mag light kits that change out the rear section of the light which has a pressure switch wired into it. These work well and make it easy to put a budget light on your gun. For mounting these little lights there are several commercial mounts that are simple and cheap.
As JWR’s “Patriots” novel (previously titled TEOTWAWKI ) stated, one can use a thin strip of white tape down the top of a barrel as a rough night sight. Probably more appropriate for close range shotguns, but of great value. Tritium night sites can be purchased for common guns for both the front and rear site. Again, you may be able to get a site picture on a target but be sure what that target is and that is not a friendly.
Then, for people with a hundred dollars or more in their weapon light budget, there are some quality bright lights in the 65 to 90 lumen range. Beyond that, combining a laser to your system will greatly enhance your nighttime shooting ability. For about $250 on up the M6 Laser / Light Combination by Stream light and the New TLR-2 seem to be excellent systems. The newer TLR-2 uses an LED rather than a halogen bulb so it is much less likely to fail with the shock of shooting heavy projectiles and the battery life is greatly extended. Streamlight claims they have a “no excuses warranty” on the TLR-2. There are other lighting systems out there but I mention these units because they are what I am somewhat familiar with.
Night Vision Devices (NVDs) are expensive, and NV scopes are little trickier to setup properly without damaging the imaging tube. For those who can afford it, NV scopes may be one of the best options especially for a retreat kept gun as opposed to a gun that is field carried (these units are rather heavy). If you do decide to buy a NVD start with a Generation 2 or better system. ATN is one of the good manufacturers. Remember to set up your NV scope in low light such as at dusk or darker, and while still having some minutes of useable light – use the pin hole cover to avoid letting too much light into the device which may cause damage on some units.
A small secondary tactical pocket light with a red filter can be very useful during nighttime operations. Use it if your gun jambs or malfunctions, or you need to verify ammo or even just to check a spot in your trail.
Other Night Shooting Options: If you are thinking about using tracers as an aid to verifying your point of impact (POI), then be sure that you have tested them along side your main ammo loads to know that they have the same trajectory at all distances that you are capable of shooting to.
Night Shooting Practice Options: It is not easy to find a safe place and method to practice night shooting skills. However, after thinking about it I came up with the idea that BB or Pellet pistols and rifles could be used for night practice. If a shooter was able to find an air rifle and pistol that were at least similar to his real guns and he mounted similar sighting and lighting systems to the shooter’s real guns – to their air guns, you might be able to develop some good skills in your basement, backyard or local woods in very low light that otherwise may be very difficult to practice with regular firearms. If you can find a place to shoot your firearms safely at night, that would be the best practice but aside from that – the air gun route may be your next best bet.
It is very hard to acquire targets through a scope in the dark when moving. This is a skill that should definitely be practiced.
A scope is still a viable option for night shooting with proper target illumination
A scope’s “useable” field of view will be further minimized at night with low illumination of the target area
A white light is a must for identifying your potential target
A focused white light that is well aligned with your sights can be used as a sighting device by itself at close range (similar to a laser aiming system)
A flashlight & laser combination may provide for the fastest night-target shots
Moving around and performing various tasks in the dark is a skill unto itself. Make time to practice
Get the best night shooting equipment you can afford, then practice with it
Practice, practice, practice
As I have written before – whatever you decide to use that matches your skill level and your budget, you absolutely must get it out and test it in the field under real conditions to make sure it works. Try your setup in the dark during rain and fog as well as clear nights. Use in high and low humidity too. Try observing multiple target types and know whether you can determine friend or foe before firing. Whatever you do in the field – do it safely!